A Quick Review of the English Teaching Assistant Program in Spain

In an attempt to improve the english of students around the country, the Spanish government invites a few thousand native english speakers to the country each year to live in its pueblos and help teach english to students and occasionally provide a lesson on cultural as well. The program is called the Auxiliares de Conversación and is run by the Ministerio de educación, cultura, y deportes. For anyone reading this who is considering the program I’ve provided a basic review of the program below. Overall the experience has been incredible and I would certainly recommend it for anyone who is thinking of teaching abroad. I was placed in Extremadura which is one of the poorest regions of Spain and far less connected to the rail networks than other locations, for these reasons some of my experiences are unique to Extremadura and won’t necessarily apply to all of Spain, the beauty of this program is that that can be said about any placement in Spain. They will all be different in their own ways, and they will all present their own challenges. If you are interested in teaching English abroad but not set on the idea of going to Spain, the JET program in Japan, the TAPIF program in France, and the EPiK program in Korea are very similar to the Auxiliares program in Spain with better pay and, I suspect, better organization.

tl;dr I would recommend the auxiliares program despite some of its flaws. If you aren’t set on going to Spain, there are other similar programs that might suit you better; more details on the auxiliar life below.


The Application Process

The requirements for becoming an auxiliar are actually quite simple. For me all that was required was two years of college, an application essay, transcripts, one letter of rec and an online application. The application also states that Spanish is not required for the program, and the auxiliar program does not provide any language assistance upon arrival. The majority of the auxiliars who do this program do have some experience with Spanish before arriving. Although it’s never mentioned, orientation and all communication with the people who run the auxiliar program is done in Spanish. This is because there is a French auxiliar program as well and so the only common language between the programs is Spanish. If you are planning on doing the auxiliar program and don’t know any Spanish, I’d highly recommend bringing a Spanish speaking friend with you or taking Spanish classes before you go and continuing them in a private setting once you arrive. The auxiliar program exists because Spaniards do not have a high level of English across the board, in all of my travels around Spain I used Spanish everywhere except in Barcelona, and that’s because Barcelona is its own beast. If you already know a little bit of Spanish and are looking to improve your Spanish, this is an excellent way to fully immerse yourself in the language and culture.

Spain is a big fan of lists and the first come first served systems so the earlier you put your application in, the more likely you are to be placed in your preferred region. It’s best to have all of your application materials prepared before the online application opens so you are able to easily submit everything once it opens. From there all that is required is a lot of patience. Each applicant will be assigned a number that shows their position on the list, once the government begins assigning placements, they will update up to which application number they have placed on their website. Unfortunately, they don’t really begin placing folks until mid-May. For all of you waiting to hear back, be patient, they will get to you eventually. Once you are placed, you have to apply for a student visa. The website has all of the instructions to complete this step, but it’s still a huge headache (as applying for a visa always is). As always, getting the visa makes you question whether your extended stay abroad is really going to be worth it, and every time it is, though it feels like a nightmare when you’re shuffling around a folder of paperwork and copies of the paperwork and wondering what you’ve forgotten. This visa will also require you to get a special seal from your state’s State Department, so make sure you do your research and know how to get that seal on your background report.

I chose to apply to the auxiliars program with my best friend because I like having a travel buddy. While the website says they will do their best to honor request to be placed together, and will not honor requests to change placements; when my friend and I were placed in entirely different regions we requested to be placed in the same region and they were happy to switch me to a new region, from there we again requested to be placed closer together and they let me choose a new placement in the same town as my friend. So despite them saying they won’t place you together, it never hurts to ask. It also helped that my friend was placed in one of the least desirable regions in Spain so there were lots of openings near him.


Arrival and Orientation

Ideally your school will contact you before you leave and make plans to meet up with you, assist you in finding your apartment, help you open your bank account, and help you get your foreign identity card once you arrive in Spain. I was not so lucky as to be contacted by my schools so I hopped on the plane with no idea what was waiting on the other side. I should add that I had made contact with other Americans in the town over Facebook, so I wasn’t entirely alone, one of whom was a teacher at a different school so I knew he would be able to help me out with contacting my school once I had arrived.

After quite a long journey, my friend and I arrived in our small town of Trujillo. Trujillo has about 10,000 people and a castle. We arrived on the weekend so we spent the first few nights in a hostel. We were lucky in connecting with the American and her Spanish husband before we left, in a typical Spanish fashion they pulled out all the stops to help us adjust to Trujillo by introducing us to their real estate agent friend who hooked us up with a great apartment almost as soon as we arrived, they explained the process for getting our ID cards in Caceres, and contacted the teachers we would be working with so we could set up times to visit them and see our schools. After that we ended up setting up our bank account on our own, which was probably better because we ended up choosing the Portuguese credit union purely by accident. If your town has a Caixa Geral I would highly recommend using them, they don’t charge any fees unless your account drops below zero and they have youth accounts for folks up to 35 years old which was perfect for our eight month stay.

We had arrived a week before orientation to give ourselves time to adjust and find a place to stay before orientation, that was incredibly useful for us and I would definitely recommend giving yourself time to adjust and get settled before starting at your schools. Orientation was mostly for the auxiliars to meet each other, as I mentioned before the coordinators speak 100% in Spanish so if you don’t speak Spanish well find a friend who can translate for you. Luckily, all of the information they tell you at orientation will also get emailed out so if you miss something check your email. You should also find a friend and use the buddy system to check that you both get all of the emails. For some reason I would only get about half of the emails from Maria Angeles. Luckily I had my friend there, so we could always check with each other about receiving emails from her. The other important part of orientation is meeting your tutor/a who is supposed to take care of you at your school (if you haven’t yet met them). I hadn’t met my tutor at my school so I went to that part of orientation so I could meet him and figure out my schedule at my schools.

Once you get your identity card settled and your bank account set up, you’ll have to send you bank account information to the program coordinators so they can do a direct transfer to pay you each month. For this program you get paid at the end of every month for the previous months work, so the earliest you could reasonably expect to be paid would be the end of October. HOWEVER, and this is important for all of you getting ready to fly out to Spain, Spain is disorganized and runs behind schedule. It’s part of life here and everyone is okay with it, if people are a little late, that’s okay, if teachers spend an extra three minutes in the teacher’s room after class has started that’s okay. This laid-back and slightly disorganized system means that you most likely won’t get paid at the end of October because they’re still collecting everyone’s bank account info, they’re still trying to connect all the dots at the end of October. Unfortunately, they’re likely still trying to pull all the loose ends together at the end of November. We didn’t get paid until the second week of December and from what we can tell that happens every year, it’s common. However, you do get paid for all three months in December so you feel pretty rich when you finally get paid.

That being said, I would definitely recommend bringing at least 1500-2500 dollars with you when you arrive to cover your expenses for those first couple months. You will still have to pay rent and while it’s much cheaper here in Spain, it’s still a pretty large monthly expense.


Teaching

Every auxiliar will have a different experience in their schools, even from class to class the experience will vary widely. Auxiliars work 12 hours a week in the classroom, this does not include the time spent prepping which can vary depending on what your teachers request of you. Because my time was split between an elementary school and a high school each one of my twelve hours was spent in a different classroom with a different set of kids. I worked with eight different teachers between my schools and each had a different style. In one class my main function was to help the students read the textbook and correct their pronunciation (I often didn’t do this well as I only corrected words that I couldn’t understand because having an accent is pretty much inevitable and not a bad thing. Unfortunately my teachers didn’t agree). In about half my classes my teachers would give me a grammar point or a chapter in the textbook and it was up to me to design an hour’s worth of activities to practice that grammar point. My favorite class was one in which I team taught with my lead teacher, we planned the lessons together each week and while I led the activity he would supplement it or help my explanation and this really helped me as it showed me how I could improve my teaching. It also kept the kids engaged and they ended up being one of my favorite classes.

While auxiliars aren’t legally allowed to be left alone in the classroom with the students, quite a few of my teachers would duck out for part or all of my class to make copies or just have a cup of coffee in the teacher’s lounge. This was a mixed blessing for me. In some classes, the absence of the main teacher allowed them to feel more comfortable speaking as they knew I wouldn’t correct every word out of their mouth and I actually started hoping the main teacher would leave the room; in other classes the teacher would leave and the students would immediately start talking and not pay any attention to me.

Every class is a little different, and while I often felt like I wasn’t making a huge difference to the kids, I got a few teary goodbyes and a lot of hugs at the end of the year that told me otherwise. In some ways, those giant group hugs from my eighth graders and my fifth graders made the whole year feel worth it. All the ups and downs, all of my own tears and frustrations around not knowing how to teach (they don’t provide any teacher training so it’s really up to you to figure it out), all of it felt like it was okay because for a few of my students, I made a difference.

As I mentioned, the english level in Spain isn’t all that high, and among my students it’s even lower. A lot of my students believe that I don’t speak Spanish very well, which is a useful tool when I’m teaching as it forces them to speak to me in English. When bidding my eighth graders goodbye, one of them came up to me and, words failing her in both languages, she looked at me with tears in her eyes, and just drew a little heart in the air. I teared up a little as I smiled, drew a heart back and said, “Me too.”

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